SINGAPORE: Multiracialism is the best “socio-weapon” to defeat the ills of terrorism, said Member of Parliament for Holland-Bukit Timah Christopher De Souza, who filed a private member’s motion on fortifying Singapore’s resolve to stay united against the threat of terrorism.
Terrorism, which “seeks to sow division, disunity, discord”, is an affront to every one regardless of race or religion and therefore requires a collective counter-offence, he said in Parliament on Tuesday (Oct 3).
Calling it a “muscular asset”, he defined multiracialism as appreciating diversity in race, language and religious beliefs, and at the same time, being loyal to a duty to advance Singapore and Singaporeans.
“The Singapore Armed Forces may have powerful weaponry, the Home Team may have sophisticated arsenal, but our nation’s best artillery against a terror attack is multiracialism,” said Mr De Souza, who is also chairperson of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Home Affairs and Law.
He acknowledged however that multiracialism does not come naturally. “Left to itself, people tend to gravitate along racial lines,” he said.
He noted that in France, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks on in January 2015, it was reported that then-Prime Minister Manuel Valls identified 64 ghettos in major cities where significant portions of population were being left behind economically and broke up into ethnic enclaves.
He shared his personal experiences with multiracialism, relating observations from his Eurasian roots. Eurasians over the centuries have become an amalgamation of many races in terms of ethnicity, including Dutch, English, Portuguese, Ceylonese and Burmese, he said.
“One can’t divide us and put a bit of us back into the different countries our ancestors came from. We have no homeland but Singapore. This is it. Our duty is to Singapore and her future. So, being part of the Eurasian race, I can understand what it means to be culturally aware of ethnic heritage and all the richness it offers but at the same time being completely focused on being Singaporeans first and foremost,” he said.
More than 10 MPs including Sun Xueling, Tan Wu Meng and Murali Pillai stood in support of the motion.
MULTIRACIALISM IMPORTANT IN FOSTERING TRUST, RESPECT, UNDERSTANDING: MPs
MP for Jurong GRC Rahayu Mahzam shared a personal anecdote on the frustration and defensiveness she felt when a few years back, when reports on Islamic State started appearing.
A friend asked why Muslims are not doing anything about it and not explaining the correct teachings to these terrorists. She sought to distinguish herself, her community and her religion from these extremists, she said.
“I told him, I do not know these people, I do not understand their psyche and it was unfair to put the burden on Muslims alone to resolve this issue with regards to the terrorists,” she said. As the days passed and the terrorist attacks continued, it became apparent that anger and distrust against Muslims also grew, she said.
“The fear and distrust is understandable, especially if you do not know about the religion and have not had any significant interaction with anyone who practices the faith. We need to counter the distrust and I believe the way to do this is to build the relationships between the different communities in Singapore,” she said.
“I am worried about the attitudes that would develop against Muslims in Singapore, the impact on the practice of the religion and daily life. I worry that a tudung-wearing Muslim woman will be discriminated against when she seeks employment. I worry a Muslim is less trusted because of his faith,” she said.
Singapore must continue to provide platforms for meaningful interaction between people of different races and religions, and children must be taught to accept and embrace the diversity within our community. This is easier said than done however, she said.
She gave some examples of how it can be done. At the grassroots level, organisers could arrange for halal and vegetarian food options, as well as avoid prayer times or time slots when people go to church when organising events.
Aljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh echoed the same sentiment. In supporting the motion on behalf of the Workers’ Party, he said that for tolerance to flourish, Singaporeans must take the initiative to learn more about and understand one another’s faiths and practices.
“In doing so, we will unwittingly but crucially facilitate a deeper and more respectful understanding of one another and by extension, strengthen our social bonds and the quality of our multiracialism,” he said.
SOCIAL COHESION NEEDS TO BE NURTURED
The social cohesion and racial harmony that Singaporeans are currently enjoying is not a given, and needs nurturing, said MP for Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC Alex Yam. He suggested that schools should take the lead in encouraging students to interact with students of other races to better understand them, their cultures and traditions.
“It should start at a young age. Otherwise, bias may set in and once it’s set, it would take a long time to dispel that,” he said.
While simple adjustments in events at the community level can help, “overt tokenism should be avoided”, he said. “Just because you have an Indian dance item or a Malay song item in the middle of a Mid-Autumn Festival event doesn’t mean more of our Indian or Malay residents will turn up,” he said.
While unity in diversity, “sounds nice, sounds warm and fuzzy”, in reality, this is a concept that needs lots of practice to make perfect, he said. “We have to admit that casual and even overt racism is still a fact, an ugly fact no less, and it is still prevalent in Singapore,” he said.
Religious chauvinism is also “very much part of our landscape”, yet often hidden away in the relative safety of inner sanctums, he added.
“It is these that we must be wary of - it is one thing to be proud of what you believe and quite another to use that pride to deride another’s beliefs. Casual racism and religious chauvinism are just one step shy of hate speech,” he said.
MP for Jurong GRC Tan Wu Meng said that Singaporeans should encourage their children to learn about the cultures of other races, “not as an exam subject, but because it is interesting and part of growing up in a multiracial Singapore”.
Learning a little bit of the languages that other communities speak can also help people feel closer and grow closer, he said, drawing reference to older Singaporeans- Chinese uncles who speak Malay or Tamil, Malay aunties who speak Hokkien.
It protects against misinformed impressions that could arise from social media. It also ensures that a single incident will not colour an individual’s perception of other communities,” Dr Tan said.
Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera said that while irresponsible racist speech and acts should not be permitted, “we should never draw these boundaries so tightly that responsible discussion of race issues cannot take place in any public platform”.
“If that happens, people will be cut off from information. They will not be able to form an educated opinion. This will make them more not less vulnerable to ignorant and divisive views on the internet or in the coffee shops,” he said.
PREVENTING SPREAD OF RADICALISED TEACHINGS
Mr De Souza also called on the Government to continue preventing radicalised teachings that promote violent extremism. There were 18 radicalised Singaporeans arrested in the past two years compared to 11 in the preceding seven years, Mr De Souza said.
He noted that Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam said three weeks ago that before the Islamic State militant group came on the scene, authorities assessed it would take about two years for individuals to become radicalised, but now some individuals may be radicalised in as little as one or two months.
He said: “With the changing nature of terrorist attacks in the world, the shorter period for radicalisation, we may need to review our laws to ensure that they are flexible enough, that they are robust enough, to mitigate against and ameliorate the morphing nature of terror threats.”
Mr De Souza said that the work of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) is crucial. The group rehabilitates persons who became radicalised through deviant teachings. MP for Bukit Batok Murali Pillai, commended the “good work” of the RRG but noted that the RRG volunteers are mostly Malay and English speaking, and wondered if Tamil, Malayalam and Bengali should be included, given the backgrounds of some of those arrested for radicalisation here.
MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC Intan Azura Mokhtar said that there is a need to work further upstream in preventing radicalisation “at its core”, before it can evolve into extremist ideologies or acts of terrorism.
“This upstream work cannot just be the effort of asatizahs (religious teachers) or Islamic religious scholars and teachers alone. In fact, there is a need to work across religions, races, cultures, and even languages in tackling these threats upstream,” she said.
Volunteers and officers in organisations like family service centres and social service offices are in frequent and direct contact with Singaporeans on a daily basis, and ought to be trained to pick up tell-tale signs or potential problems which may escalate into situations of an individual being radicalised or worse, committing acts of terrorism, whether religiously motivated or otherwise, she said.
Some tell-tale signs could be being reclusive or withdrawn, spending too much time online, developing sudden changes in views or perceptions or behaviour, or developing intense frustrations or anger management issues.
MP for Aljunied GRC Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap suggested the introduction of psychology as part of Science in secondary schools, as he said that hardline extremists manipulate minds in order to plant perspectives and perceptions, which may be countered by learning psychology, which teaches human behaviour and knowledge about perceptions.
In introducing the motion, Mr De Souza also spoke about promoting vigilance and resilience among Singaporeans to deter and overcome terrorist attacks.
“The possibility of a terror attack needs to be ingrained into the consciousness of everyone. It should not cripple us in Singapore with fear. Rather, that consciousness should help us to know how to spot suspicious activities and how to react to them in a calm and systematic fashion,” he said.